X Prize announces $2 million competition to measure ocean acidification

The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize will award the developers of a cheap and effective pH sensor to measure ocean acidification levels.

Kemit-Amon Lewis/The Nature Conservancy/AP
The prestigious X Prize competition has announced a new award geared at abating ocean acidification. The process that has been catastrophic to the world's coral, which is seen here in a nursery in the Caribbean coral reef restoration program.

The prestigious X Prize Foundation has announced a new competition geared at tackling ocean acidification, which has in recent years taken a hard hit at some of the ocean’s hardest-bodied animals.

The 22-month competition, slated to open for submissions at the beginning of 2014, carries a total purse prize of $2 million for the developers of a pH sensor capable of measuring the acidification of the world’s oceans, a poorly understood process visible in deteriorating coral reefs and struggling oyster populations.

Called the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize, the award is the latest multimillion dollar venture from the X Prize Foundation, the fund made famous as a catalyst for private spaceflight. In 2004, the foundation awarded $10 million to aerospace company Scaled Composites for the commercial spacecraft prototype that now underpins Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which boomed closer to market-readiness last week with another supersonic test flight.

This latest prize is also the second collaborative effort between X Prize and philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, the wife of Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. Ms. Schmidt had in 2011 previously joined with X Prize to fund the $1.3 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge.

Ocean acidification begins, as most climate change stories do, with fossil fuel burning and burgeoning atmospheric CO2 levels. As CO2 levels rise, the ocean’s levels of the gas also rise: the world’s oceans absorb about a quarter of the atmosphere’s CO2, an intake that reduces the seawater’s pH, as well as the water's concentration of the calcium carbonate minerals that support the formation of marine life’s skeletons and shells.

Over the last 250 years, and after absorbing some 530 billion tons of CO2, the planet’s oceans have experienced a roughly 30 percent increase in ocean acidity, a galling percentage after about 20 million years of pre-industrial period acidic stability.

And while the world’s oceans are still alkaline, that is expected to change. Projections for future acidification show that the Southern Ocean, which abuts Antarctica, will become corrosive around 2050, if current CO2 emissions rates continue. The reduction in pH levels has already been recorded as upending food webs and taxing fisheries, as it takes a toll on the oysters farmed in the US’s West Coast and on Bermuda’s bustling coral reefs.

But ocean acidification is overall not a well-studied process. In large part, that’s due to the fact that present pH sensor technologies are too expensive or primitive to plumb the world’s highest latitudes, deep seas, and more coastal regions for details on just how and where the acidification is occurring.

“Our oceans are currently in the midst of a silent crisis,” says the foundation, on its website. “To fully understand and adapt to the threat of ocean acidification, better pH sensing systems to monitor and collect ocean pH data are urgently needed.”

The competition is offering two prize purses, each $1 million, but teams are eligible to win both. The first purse is the $1,000,000 Accuracy award, split into a $750,000 First Place and a $250,000 Second Place prize, which will be awarded to “the teams produce the most accurate, stable and precise pH sensors under a variety of tests.”

The second purse, also split into first and second prize, is the Affordability award, given to “the teams that produce the least expensive, easy-to-use, accurate, stable, and precise pH sensors under a variety of tests.”

Registration for the competition will be open from January 1 to June 1. The full event will include lab trials in San Francisco, coastal trials in Seattle, and sea trials in Hawaii. It is expected to wrap up in May 2015.

X Prize has several other active prizes, including the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE to send a robot to the moon and the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE aimed at engineering a mobile healthcare device.

In August, the foundation for the first time ever cancelled one of its competitions, the Archon Genomics XPRIZE. Initiated in 2006, the prize promised $10 million to the first team able to sequence 100 whole human genomes at a cost of $10,000 or less per genome. Just seven years later, after an unprecedented revolution in the speed and cost of genomic sequencing, and with private companies charging less than $5,000 per genome, the competition’s goal was moot.

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